Language programs shift focus to adapt to changing student skillset

Media Credit: Matt Dynes | Staff Photographer

Richard Robin, the director of Russian Language in the department of Romance, German and Slavic languages and literatures, said students intending to pursue a full-time professorial career are having the most trouble in a competitive market.

More students pursuing language doctorate degrees are shifting the focus of their studies to better prepare for the current job market.

Responding to a more competitive industry and shrinking opportunities for tenure-track positions in academia, language departments across the country have been concentrating more on data analytics as part of their curriculum. Professors in foreign language departments said these skills could make students more competitive even in non-academic markets, improving job security.

The job market for language students now requires skills beyond what would be required for traditional research, according to an Inside Higher Ed report earlier this month. Many doctoral candidates eventually end up in administrative roles that are outside of a traditional faculty position, according to the report.

The study also found only 13 percent of English jobs listed American literature as a key skill and only 2 percent of job listings in all languages emphasized a background in comparative literature, the study of literature across linguistic and international boundaries.

University spokesman Jason Shevrin said that while departments largely make their own decisions on making curricula that teach pertinent workforce skills, doctoral students in English have resources – like the GW Digital Humanities Institute, which launched in 2013 – to help those students learn the technical skills that are now more in demand.

“The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences expects its departments to provide courses that will train their students with the skills that are needed in their discipline,” he said in an email.

The University offers Ph.Ds in English through CCAS, but does not have foreign language doctoral programs.

Richard Robin, the director of Russian Language in the department of Romance, German and Slavic languages and literatures, said that since full-time faculty in language departments wear many hats, students intending to pursue a full-time professorial career that focuses primarily on teaching rather than research are the ones likely having the most trouble in a competitive market.

“Falling Ph.D graduation rates speak more to a decline in the humanities fields surrounding foreign language study, not the study of foreign languages themselves,” he said.

Robin added that CCAS had made a commitment to gradually replace part-time faculty members in popular language courses like Spanish and French with full-time professors. The school is about halfway through this process, he said.

“That is good news for GW language students. But it doesn’t mean a rush to hire those dwindling newly minted Ph.Ds,” he said. “A talented teacher with a master’s degree can teach Spanish language courses if properly prepared. But a course in the Arabic influences on medieval Spanish? That takes a fully trained scholar.”

Other language professors said arguably the most important skill a Ph.D candidate could learn would fall within the scope of digital humanities, which uses tools like interactive websites to explain humanities topics to an audience.

Heather Bamford, an assistant professor of Spanish literature, said she is working on a project that incorporates the digital humanities by taking an ancient text and transferring it to an interactive website, a format that is generally more engaging to an audience.

Bamford added that there is an increasing demand for language students to have skills in data and be able to work with technical platforms.

“The job market is fiercely competitive in terms of academic positions,” she said. “I think that is one of the main reasons that people are going to work in data positions or in an academic department or at least the kind of jobs people want, which are the most secure jobs – like tenure and tenure-track positions.”

Alex Fisher, a lecturer in Slavic language, said it has become commonplace to work with data in her field because of the need to understand the logic behind new statistical software.

“There are all kinds of different programs that Ph.D and even whole university departments are developing in order to make these research tools more efficient to give better access to information,” Fisher said. “It’s also very helpful and beneficial if you know a bit of computer coding.”

But some professors said students looking for jobs should move on from the competitive academic field and instead put their skills to use in communications, where foreign language skills have become more valuable in a global business environment.

Erika McGinn, a lecturer in German, said the corporate world could benefit from hiring individuals with years of language experience, like Ph.D graduates, because they would be able to better understand the cultures and motivations of different countries.

“To be successful in the global market it’s not just enough to read an article in English about that culture,” McGinn said. “It’s extremely important to learn how they think, and you cannot learn how they think without the language because it is the mindset of the culture.”

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